Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, August 15, 2008

Book Review - Two Lives by William Trevor


Every time the great Irish writer, William Trevor publishes something new, critics everywhere say it's the greatest thing he's ever written. And it is. Until he writes something else, that is.

Two Lives, however, has won a special place in my heart, and while I love everything Trevor writes, I doubt that anything will ever top Two Lives for me.

Two Lives is composed of two elegant and elegiac novels, each centering on a fiftysomething woman, and each taking place during the summer of 1987.

At first glance, the lives of Mary Louise Quarry and Emily Delahunty couldn't seem more different. Mary Louise, an Irish farm girl and the heroine of "Reading Turgenev" has lived in a home for the mentally and emotionally disturbed and impaired for the past thirty-one years. Repressed and emotionally fragile, the only experience Mary Louise has ever had of love, despite an early and ongoing marriage, revolves around her dying cousin, Robert, who lived with his mother in a crumbling Irish country house and who shares his love of Turgenev with Mary Louise.

While Mary Louise's life constantly turns inward, Emily Delahunty, the outgoing romance novelist who takes center stage in "My House in Umbria," looks to others for emotional sustenance. The abandoned daughter of carnival performers, Emily's always made her own way in the world, and unlike Mary Louise, she's had a great deal more experience of love than most. At least the "business" side of love, and it's this business side that's paid for her charming villa in the Umbrian countryside not far from Siena.

When we first met both Mary Louise and Emily, each woman is dealing with a traumatic event that has, at least temporarily, turned her world upside down. Trevor tells us each woman's story as he moves from the present to the past and back to the present once again. Little by little, we learn how these two women, who've lived such extraordinarily different lives on the outside are, at their core, so very, very similar. Each woman constructs her life around fantasy, and though Emily Delahunty may, at first, seem the stronger of the two, as we read on, we learn this isn't necessarily true. Mary Louise's inner resources might not be so much in evidence, but there's no doubt they run deep. In the end, a perceptive reader can reach no easy conclusions about either woman or the people with whom she shares her life and interacts. The line betwen reality and fantasy is deliberately blurred. But that's William Trevor. In the master writer's hands, nothing is clear-cut, nothing is easy, and nothing is quite as it seems.

Although there are mirrors and echoes of each novella in the other, Trevor has said he didn't set out for this to be so. He didn't plan a book containing two novellas, each revolving around a woman who needs to construct a fantasy life in order to survive. Instead, Trevor tells us "one tends to write out of an obsession and the obsession didn't end when I finished the first one."

The "first one" was "My House in Umbria," the story of Emily Delahunty, though most readers consider "Reading Turgenev" the superior novella. Certainly the Booker committee did when they shortlisted it for the prize in 1991.

Both "Reading Turgenev" and "My House in Umbria" are gorgeously wrought novels. Each is infused with Trevor's trademark melancholy, bleakness, insight, subtle wit, and above all, his tremendous compassion for the entire human race.

Once again, William Trevor has shown us there's no finer author writing in the English language today.

5/5

Recommended: Most enthusiastically. Along with Felicia's Journey, this is Trevor's finest work in a lifetime of fine works.

Why We Respect Michiko Kakutani

Michiko Kakutani. If you've written a book, especially if you're a firsttime author, chances are you fear her. If you don't know who Michiko Kakutani is, she's the lead fiction book reviewer fo the "New York Times," and has been for quite a few years now. Her opinions are greatly respected, with the possible exception of those whose writing she doesn't like, and over the years, she's gained the power to make or break a writer's career.

As a serious reader and a serious "still learning" writer of literary fiction, I both admire and respect Michiko Kakutani. Too many reviewers, and this includes not only professional reviewers, but amateur reviewers who want to increase their "page rank," etc., pander to publishers by giving a book praise it doesn't deserve.

Sure, everyone's entitled to his or her own opinion, and we all have different ideas on what makes a book good. Up to a point, all writing is subjective, but only up to a point. Good, clear, emotionally involving writing does carry objective rules, and they're rules every writer needs to master before he or she goes about breaking them for the sake of "art."

I used to be a far more trusting, and naive, reader than I am today. If a professional reviewer said a book was "mesmerizing," "hypnotic," and "haunting," and assured me I'd never be able to forget it, I believed him or her. I'd run out and immediately buy the book, and more often than not, I'd be terribly disappointed.

I like and respect Michiko Kakutani for having the courage to tell us a book is bad, or at least less than extraordinary, when it is. But no, I'm not a sheep, I don't always agree with even her. She praised Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth, and though I found much to admire in that book, I also found much that was less than stellar, especially from a Pulitzer Prize winning author. For example, Lahiri consistently uses "one another" rather than "each other" when she's speaking of only two persons. My eight-year-old niece knows better than that, and that's just the beginning of the plethora of grammar mistakes I found in this volume of short stories. And Lahiri's writing, though elegant and understated, is also flat and abstract.

Still, even though Michiko Kakutani and I disagree about certain books, I respect her courage and the fact that she is her own person. Very few novels can legitimately be called "a masterpiece." Even fewer are as close to perfect as possible. I hope more and more reviewers, both professional and amateur, will follow her lead and start giving readers a more honest and balanced assessment of books under their review, an assessment designed to help the reader in choosing whether or not to read the book, rather than one that tries to promote the book itself, no matter what its merits.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Why We're NOT Wild About Red Room

When we first heard about Red Room, we thought it was a terrific idea. In fact, two of our editors even had Member (not Author, editors aren't always authors) pages over there. Not anymore.

For one thing, both of our editors got a nasty computer virus from Red Room that completely erased their hard drives in fewer than thirty seconds. (Luckily they had everything backed up on CD.) Now, we'll give Red Room this - they can't police every single thing that every single member puts up on their "space." However, Red Room's owner, Ivory Madison claims she raised more than $3.25 million to fund her project, so one would think she could put up a Web site designed by a legitimate designer and not use a drupal content management system riddled with bugs. The site's terribly unattractive, but still, this isn't its major drawback. Not everything that's good is attractive. However, things don't line up properly on Red Room, other things overlap, the directory of authors and members isn't in alphabetical order, etc. When one wants to read an author page, things are okay, but when one wants to read a member page, one's presented with a totally white screen - until the reader scrolls down, down, down, down, down and finally sees the member's profile. This shouldn't be. Sure, we know Madison can't spend her entire booty on Web design, but for $10,000 she could have the best Website in the world - and she has a site that looks, well, to put it charitably, bad.

Touted as a "MySpace for Writers," that's exactly what Red Room is. And really, if you're a serious writer, why on earth would you want to be on a "MySpace?" Now, we've got nothing against MySpace. It's secure, it was designed by actual Web designers with Cold Fusion, and it serves the purpose it was meant to serve, the purpose it states it serves. However, serious writers write, they don't hang around Red Room writing blogs about the paucity of their lives and leaving comments for others who should be writing as well. In fact, if a writers wants exposure, much better to actually BE on MySpace than on Red Room. Or Associated Content. Both sites have millions of members, and both sites are secure and free from viruses.

The advertising that a reader can "connect" with A-list writers like Salman Rushdie, Amy Tan, and Maya Angelou on Red Room is half true, half not true. At best, as we see it, it's a slanted truth. Yes, these writers have publicists who put up pages for them, but these are, as we said, A-list writers. They're WRITING. They aren't blogging on Red Room and "connecting" with readers. If you truly want to connect with one of these writers, write them a letter through their agent or publisher or through their official Website.

Ms. Madison says she'll be adding publisher, agent, and editor pages to Red Room. We aren't fortune tellers, but we don't feel this is going to work. Publishers, agents, and editors are the busiest people in the world. We should know - most of us are editors. We read, we have breakfast meetings, we have lunch meetings and dinner meetings, we take work home with us almost every night and every weekend. We skip social events and getting our hair done. The last thing we have time for is surfing a list of D-authors on Red Room.

The A-list on Red Room already has representation. The remainder, the active writers and would be writers on Red Room are, for the most part, D-list authors. People the general public has never heard of. If they already have representation, they don't need it. If they want representation, they're going to have to get it the traditional way.

As for Madison's own writing, she wrote a comic book. Just one. And it's ranked approximately three million on amazon.com, with one review, awarding it only one-star.

This is our opinion only, of course, but we don't like Red Room, and we feel if you're a writer who wants to be taken seriously, you'll steer clear of the place. Red Room is rapidly becoming the place serious writers DON'T want to be seen.

Another problem with Red Room, even if it were attractive and even if were populated by A-list authors (and there's nothing wrong with B- and C-list authors, many of them just need a little more publicity) is the fact that when a reader is browsing your Red Room page, there are so many distraction to take him or her AWAY from your page. Other blog entries and comments, etc. People see something that interests them, and they immediately click away from your page and go on to another. You want the focus of the reader's attention to be on you and your writing, not on someone else's.

Content is king, and the bottom line on Red Room is that the content just isn't good.

Example: We found this comment on Red Room: Anybody can dawn a bulbous red nose, fluffy red wig, baggy clothes and giant shoes and bulldoze around like a clown in disguise, but the impostor will eventually be unmasked. - Ben Campbell

Now, the comment above is supposed to be from a PUBLISHED WRITER. What published writer worth his salt, we have to ask, would write "Anybody can dawn...." If this wouldn't be so sad, it would be hilariously funny, and this shows you the calibre of "writers" that frequent Red Room. The correct word is, of course, "don." Dawn, Ben Campbell, is that special time of day when the sun comes up. :)

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Rocky Road to Short Story Publication

If you’ve ever submitted a short story to a magazine for publication, you know how easy it is to just give up when the rejection slips start coming in, and they will come in, even if your story is magnificent. However, if you’ve mastered your craft, and you’ve done the best job possible writing your story, giving up really shouldn’t be an option.

It’s not easy to get a short story published, even an excellent one, unless, of course, your uncle is the fiction editor at “Vanity Fair,” and I’m assuming he’s not, or you wouldn’t be reading this, but neither is publication impossible, even for a new writer. New writers are being published almost every day, and with a lot of dedication and hard work, you could be one. However, don’t think you can submit less than your best and be published anywhere. You have lots and lots of competition, and your work’s going to have to be good. It’s going to have to be very, very good.

I’m going to assume that you’ve mastered your craft, and if you’ve mastered your craft and if you’ve written the best story you can, you’ve also been meticulous about checking your spelling, punctuation, and grammar. The one and only time a mistake in spelling or grammar is acceptable is when you’ve created a character who uses less than perfect grammar herself. Whose poor spelling or grammar is a part of his or her everyday speech.

Your story might make perfect sense to you, but then, you’re the author, you know exactly what you want to convey. Before sending it out, it’s a good idea to let a few other people, preferably not family members, read it. (Family members are just too close to us to make good readers.) If these people have a hard time keeping track of what’s going on, or find gaps in your narrative, you’ve obviously still got some rewriting to do.

There are hundreds of magazines and Websites that publish short stories, some of them glossy and prestigious, others a little more humble looking. Obviously, we’d all love to be published in “The New Yorker” or “The Paris Review,” but realistically, this probably isn’t going to happen, and truth be told, these magazines, prestigious as they are, might not be the best fit for your story. This is where research comes into play, research you’re going to have to do.

Grab a copy of the current Novel and Short Story Writers’ Market. This indispensable book lists thousands of publications and gives you enough relevant information about each so you can make a decision as to whether your story is likely to find a warm welcome or a rejection at the magazine you’ve been considering. You don’t want to send a romance to a magazine that only focuses on highly literary stories. Why waste their time and yours?

You should make it a habit to become as familiar as possible with as many literary publications as possible. It’s imperative you read as many literary magazines as possible that publish work similar to your own writing style. Why? Because you need to stay abreast of what’s being published, and because you don’t want to submit a story, no matter how good, to a magazine that’s just published one very similar in plot or theme to yours.

Set realistic goals for yourself. The big glossies pay the most for short stories, and certainly being published in “The New Yorker” is a “career maker,” but if you have no publication credits, it’s far better to stick to the smaller presses, ones that make it a point to consider and support superlative new writers. You won’t make much money at first. In fact, you might not make any money at all, but publication in a reputable literary journal, at this stage, should be reward enough.

If you’re not determined to see your story printed on actual paper, you might want to try an online literary site. The upside of this is that there are a lot of online literary journals, and most of them consider novice writers. The downside is that though you’ll be published, your chances of being read won’t be nearly as great as if you’d been published in a traditional magazine, instead.

If you really, honestly, truly believe your story is stellar, but you lack publication credits, you might consider entering it in a contest. You’ll have to pay an entry fee in the range of $10 - $20 per entry, and the prizes will probably range from nothing but publication to $5,000. Just make sure the contest is legitimate because there are a few bad apples out there that can spoil the whole barrel.

Remember that uncle we talked about? The one who’s the fiction editor at “Vanity Fair?” Now’s the time to summon all of your courage and ask him if he’d consider your story for publication. Use any contacts you might have – professors, editors, other authors. I know, I know. I hate to “ask” others for help, too, but sometimes we all need a little.

Some publications are incredibly picky about their submission guidelines, while others are much more flexible. Whether picky or flexible, it’s absolutely imperative you read and understand each publication’s submission guidelines carefully, then follow them to the letter.

Happy writing and good luck.